Letter From Baghdad

Mitchell A. Tyner January/February 2004

Remember all those pictures of Iraq you've seen on TV? Believe most of it, but not all. A few things are better than reported; some others are a lot worse. Very little here is normal. Iraq is hot, dirty, hot, chaotic, hot, stressful, hot, dangerous—did I mention hot? The afternoon highs run 115 to 120 degrees, with not a cloud in sight.

Even getting here is abnormal and stressful. The airport is closed to airline traffic, so you have three options: (1) you can drive 10 hours across the desert from Amman, Jordan, through what is referred to here as Ali Baba Alley because of the prevalence and effectiveness of thieves along the route (remember, with only 140,000 troops on the ground in a country the size of California, and no local police, most things and places go unguarded); (2) you can drive up from Kuwait on a somewhat safer route; or (3), the option we chose, you can fly in from Amman with an organization called AirServ that exists to ferry personnel of nongovernmental organizations and relief agencies to Baghdad, using 12 to 18 passenger planes. Yes, they get you to the airport—but not the usual way. Instead of a nice, gentle glide slope down from cruising altitude, you come directly over the airport at 15,000 feet and corkscrew down to avoid lower altitudes until you're in secure airspace.

Security is, of course, a paramount concern here, and there is precious little of it. Military patrols are everywhere. There's a tank sitting outside our hotel and a military police checkpoint at the other end of the block. But people are afraid to move about the city, and most refuse to leave home after dark. Every day there are shootings, and every night rapes and robberies. More than 700 people in Baghdad have died of gunshot wounds this month. It does get your attention!

Remember I said some things are even worse than reported? You know about the heat (although knowing and experiencing are two different things), and you know about the random violence (but you haven't experienced sitting in your hotel room and hearing the pop-pop-pop of small arms fire, or feeling as much as hearing the explosion of something bigger). There's more. No one has picked up the garbage since Saddam left town. The electricity is on two or three hours, then off the same amount of time.

And the phones don't work. Well, only a few: specifically, only cell phones that have a United States area code 914 number, obtained via the Coalition Provisional Authority, or CPA. Yes, I know that 914 is Westchester County, New York. It now includes Iraq. Go figure. Anyway, phones are few and far between. How do you go about conducting any semblance of normal affairs with no security, no traffic control, and no telephone? It's a challenge.
Enough complaining. As you know, my mission here involves contacts with people in the CPA and with local religious leaders. We're working on both some very specific current religious liberty problems and also doing some longer-range thinking about how things might—and should—be after the departure of the coalition. We're making progress, and have had a few pleasant surprises amid the chaos.

Remember I said a few things are better than reported? Well, here's one. Earlier this week I met with the representatives of the religious groups in Iraq: Muslim, Orthodox, Chaldean Catholic, and various Protestant groups. We talked about the problems they are experiencing, as well as their hopes for the future. I asked what message they wanted the CPA to hear. It came down to this: "We have lived here together peacefully for a millennium. We know how to do it. Give us security and a government that treats us all equally and equitably, and we'll do it again."

The most impressive speech was made by a lawyer who represents several religious groups in Iraq. He said, "We want a government that respects our heritage and history, but we also want a government that separates religious power from political power. We don't want an established religion. We want a government that respects religions—all of them. We don't want a society that demeans religion, as some Western cultures do. We are familiar with global notions of individual rights. We want those rights and protections."

It was a great speech. Neither of us could have said it better, or more directly. Here's the kicker: the lawyer is a Shiite! In the West the media so often portray a caricature of Shiites as foaming at the mouth and throwing bombs. Not this guy. He is both knowledgeable about and clearly dedicated to his religion, and at the same time completely supportive of human rights and equality. That's a powerful combination.

Yes, there are Shiites who advocate (and practice) violence in the name of God. Guess what? In my recent travels I've met Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and an array of other people who do the same. No religion is immune from its own violent minority, including ours. But every religion also has a core of rational, knowledgeable people who want equal rights in the public square for its adherents, and who want exactly the same rights for all others, even those with whom they disagree. They aren't Americans, but they immediately understand Ben Franklin's famous observation that if we don't hang together we will all hang separately.

Those are the people we need to know. So for the next few hot days here in Baghdad, I'll keep my head down and keep looking for more of them.
"Mitch" Tyner is now back from Iraq. His usual address is Silver Spring, Maryland, where he is associate general counsel for the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Article Author: Mitchell A. Tyner